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A How-to Guide for Police Organizations

When it comes to adopting evidence-based approaches, does the size of an organization really matter?

This practical guide brings leading police and sociology experts together to demonstrate how police forces of all sizes can successfully embed evidence-based methods by using their strengths and limitations to their advantage. Drawing on experiences of policing in North America, it proposes new ways of strategizing and harnessing the talents of ‘change champions’.

Building on the authors’ widely adopted first book on evidence-based policing, this is essential reading for practitioners, aspiring leaders, students and policy-makers.

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Although we recognize that ‘research methods’ is often the least favourite topic for many people, successfully engaging with the ‘triple-T’ strategy – particularly as it relates to the testing component – requires a degree of knowledge on research methods and research design. In recognizing that engaging in research is not something that many police practitioners do as part of their regular duties, the purpose of this chapter is to provide an overview of research fundamentals.

To begin, this chapter will provide a broad overview of both quantitative and qualitative methods. While doing so, practical police-related examples will be provided to articulate how some of the elements discussed throughout can be employed in practice to answer research questions that may be pertinent within a policing context. Before wrapping up, we will also discuss two important components that are used to understand the body and quality of research: evidence hierarchies and evidence syntheses. As will be outlined later on, evidence hierarchies and syntheses not only help us in determining whether a particular police practice, policy, or strategy is evidence-based or not, but they also remind us to be cautious about what we consider as ‘evidence’.

A note of caution: what this chapter will not do is explain how to employ what is discussed. Doing so would require significant elaboration on research-related components that simply cannot be described in full within a single chapter. Therefore, this chapter should be considered as a preliminary ‘starting point’ for basic information related to quantitative and qualitative methods.

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In the earliest days of evidence-based policing (EBP), it was an approach understood and adopted by only a handful of people, arguably a few academics and police leaders in the UK and USA. Today, much has changed. We are increasingly seeing its adoption by a range of policing practitioners and scholars across the globe. Among the former are crime analysts (Drawve et al, 2017; Finnegan et al, 2018; Mark et al, 2019), frontline police officers (Williams and Coupe, 2017), and police leaders (Martin, 2018; Murray, 2018), who are variously developing, executing, commissioning, and/or using research to inform policies and practices. Some of this work is beginning to occur at the agency level (most notably in the UK); however, EBP does not require a whole-agency approach, and many practitioners work on individual or one-off projects on their own, hoping to build internal and external support for evidence-based practices through success. Others adopt EBP simply because it suits their personal ethos, providing them with individual opportunities to solve problems within their work environment, and creating new opportunities to stimulate learning and personal growth.

Introducing a new way of critically examining policy and practice is uncomfortable for most professions. In policing, an occupational culture with a history of conservativism, traditionalism, and concern for rank and hierarchy (Skolnick, 1966; Loftus, 2010; Paoline, 2014), attempting to advance a scientific approach to the policing profession on your own can seem daunting1 (see, for example, Reuss-Ianni, 1983; Chan, 1997). That said, there are some excellent resources on implementing small- or large-scale organizational changes that can help you to navigate these murky waters (see, for example, Grant, 2016; Kaplan, 2017).

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Academic researchers have recently focused much-needed attention on the question of police openness or willingness (‘receptivity’) to adopt evidence-based approaches (Telep and Lum, 2014; Telep, 2017; Blaskovits et al, 2018). Of equal importance, however, is the question of how agencies can go about moving from intention to action, by actually identifying and utilizing the resources necessary to implement evidence-based practices. While some scholars (Lum and Koper, 2017; Ratcliffe, 2018a) and groups (the various Societies of Evidence-Based Policing) have tried to fill this void with practical suggestions, police practitioners – particularly those in smaller organizations – can be left feeling totally adrift in what is often entirely unchartered territory. We are not alone in observing the gap between receptivity and action: in a study of evidence-based training at the College of Policing in the UK, Fleming and Wingrove (2017: 205) found that whereas attendees held favourable views on the course content, they ‘expressed concerns about the resources needed to implement evidence based approaches in their agency.’ Further, participants felt ‘the organizational structures and resources required to implement EBP were not currently in place’ and were somewhat sceptical about whether organizational culture could change sufficiently to truly embrace the EBP ethos (Fleming and Wingrove, 2017: 202).

Fortunately, we are not advocating for wholesale change here, but rather, providing suggestions for how to effect smaller, incremental steps towards becoming more evidence-based in organizational decision-making. A starting point to that process is to recognize where any agency is at in terms of resources, but also cultural norms and openness to change.

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While it might seem that mid-sized agencies typically have greater resources than smaller services, this doesn’t mean they always know where those resources are, or how to best make use of them when it comes to implementing evidence-based policing (EBP). This reality is often reflected in the fact that many larger police services, despite having trained research staff, pracademics, and/or other resources to hand, do not appropriately target problems or test or track new initiatives (Slothower et al, 2015). To illustrate: a recent survey on receptivity EBP approaches by mid-sized Canadian police services found ‘mixed views were expressed by respondents in relation to their agency’s ability to target high priority policing problems and to test strategies for fixing these problems … [and] views were overwhelmingly negative when respondents reflected on how well they thought their agencies track the effectiveness of strategies over time’ (Huey et al, 2017: 544).

In this chapter, we focus on identifying existing and potential resources that mid-sized agencies can draw on to implement EBP practices and maximize research creation and use. We also present successful strategies and practices that have been used by police agencies across the globe, and discuss the strengths and limitations of those approaches given resource, workload, funding, and other issues. We explain where challenges might lie for the mid-sized agency, as well as some ideas for surmounting obstacles. And, as in other chapters, we draw on the relevant literature, our own experiences, and the experiences of police officers who are working within the EBP domain, to present some old and some new ideas for implementing different EBP strategies.

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Throughout the early part of the 2010s, the City of New York, and New York Police Department (NYPD) in particular, were generating significant positive attention over the fact that the city’s crime rate had dropped at about twice the national rate (Roeder et al, 2015). Heralded as the ‘New York Miracle’, commentators observed how the City that had formerly stood as a symbol for crime, social disorder, and urban decay was now the City that had become ‘safe’ (Zimring, 2013). Some have credited NYPD’s use of Wilson and Kelling’s (1982) ‘broken windows’ approach as generating declines in certain offences (Sengupta and Jantzen, 2018); others cite police use of the CompStat model to target district-level offences as the primary catalyst of change (Zimring, 2013). Regardless of what actually drove New York’s crime decline, cities across the globe began to look to New York as offering potential solutions to adopt in response to their own local conditions.

That New York became a site from which other, frequently smaller, police services sought to poach crime fighting ideas is not surprising in one sense: larger police services often have the financial and human resources to develop and test their own innovations and/or to trial new technologies. To illustrate: the first major trial of body-worn cameras (BWCs) in the UK was with Devon and Cornwall Police, and the Toronto Police Service were the site of the first trial in Canada, both agencies with more than a couple of thousand sworn officers. Similarly, we find two other major municipal agencies – Los Angeles and Dallas – as two early adopters of predictive policing software.

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As we’ve observed with numerous policing initiatives over the years, programs can quickly become derailed as a result of a lack of forethought to the issue of long-term sustainability (Willis et al, 2007; Bradley and Nixon, 2009; Kalyal et al, 2018). Of all the topics we cover in this book, this is likely the one that is easiest to describe in theory but that will generate the most difficulty in practice. The reason for this is simple: the adoption of evidence-based policing (EBP) requires not only a degree of investment in individuals as change agents, but also, for some agencies, what might appear to be a radical rethinking of how police services engage in decision-making. While we recognize that the exigencies of policing can sometimes be best met by the traditional command and control structure, an evidence-based organization is one that embodies a learning culture – that is, an institutional culture that places emphasis on seeing operational and administrative decisions as opportunities for implementing innovation and learning lessons from both success and failure. It is also one that requires a more decentralized approach to viewing expertise and soliciting input and feedback into decision-making. In this chapter, we draw on the relevant management and other literatures, as well as on our own and others’ experiences, to make some specific and some broader recommendations for how to generate a sustainable EBP approach within small organizations.

A study was recently published showing that police officers experience increased job satisfaction when engaged in problem-solving activities within their communities (Sytsma and Piza, 2018).

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Throughout this book we have looked at how to get started learning about evidence-based policing (EBP), whether you are an individual looking to educate yourself on the topic or a leader in a large organization attempting to shift cultural values, using agency size as a framework. Although we have used agency size as a framework, some large agencies (Chapter 7) might find solutions in the chapter on small agencies (Chapter 5) useful, and vice versa. That being the case, we thought a chapter dedicated entirely to useful evidence-based resources might be a handy go-to guide, no matter the size of the agency.

This chapter is broken down into various EBP Societies, policing organizations, and universities that have dedicated their resources to sharing evidence-based information.

We begin with the most obvious resources, the Societies of Evidence-Based Policing, and review some of what each of the Societies offers for their members.

The first Society of Evidence Based Policing (SEBP) was formed in the UK, which is why their name and website does not indicate a country. At the time it was established, there were no similar societies. Because other countries soon followed suit and created similar societies, SEBP is referred to in the literature and in conferences as the UK Society of Evidence Based Policing, but on its website (see www.sebp.police.uk), its official name is the Society of Evidence Based Policing. It was founded in 2010 and is open ‘to any member of police staff or researcher who is committed to making a positive impact in the community through using the best available research evidence’, and is ‘made up of police officers, police staff and research professionals who aim to make evidence based methodology part of everyday policing in the UK’ (www.sebp.police.uk).

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Okay, we’re sold. But now what? (Question asked by a police chief)

About 20 years ago, Lawrence Sherman (1998) wrote an article for the National Police Foundation in the USA that set out two important challenges:

  • For police agencies: to participate in the creation and use of high-quality research to guide the development of evidence-based policy, programs and practices.

  • For researchers: to craft scientific work that can be readily understood and used by police services.

The rationale? To learn from what the combination of science and police expertise can tell us ‘works’ (and what doesn’t) in relation to various aspects of public policing, from reducing burglaries to deterring gun violence.

Since Sherman’s famous challenge, we’ve seen the global growth of evidence-based policing (EBP) into a movement of sorts that has spawned four Societies of Evidence-Based Policing (in the UK, Canada, the USA, and Australia and New Zealand) numbering thousands of members. There are annual conferences, training seminars, books, articles, and various tools and resources to help the budding EBP practitioner. But so far, despite various attempts at laying out some general ideas and principles (see Martin, 2018), what no one has been willing to tackle is the dreaded question posed to us after nearly every presentation or training session we’ve led: ‘How do you actually do this stuff?’

In this book, we tackle this question in a practical, nuts and bolts sort of way, offering ideas and suggestions drawn from both our own research into embedding EBP and from the broader research literature.

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The entire premise of evidence-based policing (EBP), with its emphasis on ‘what works’, should, in theory, be of immense appeal to police services. After all, we have a sizeable body of research that shows how programs and strategies based on sound research can contribute significantly to police effectiveness and efficiency (Lum, 2009). For example, proactive strategies such as CompStat (Computerized Statistics), problem-oriented policing (POP), intelligence-led policing (ILP) (Ratcliffe, 2008), and hotspots policing (Sherman and Weisburd, 1995) have been found to be more effective compared to random and reactive models. Research by Braga and Weisburd (2010) shows that an evidence-based approach was effective in reducing crime when adopted by police services in the USA by helping officers to focus on areas with a greater incidence of crime. And yet, despite such research, uptake of EBP by police organizations has generally been rather slow (Lum et al, 2012). Why is that? In this chapter, we take an organizational perspective, looking first at factors that affect police receptiveness to EBP, and then later identifying factors that affect resistance. Our goal: to help both police practitioners and their services move beyond various institutional obstacles and stumbling blocks.

Evidence-based practices are expected to help police organizations enhance their knowledge base, effectiveness, and economic efficiency (Bierly et al, 2009). One would assume that given the noted benefits of EBP, there would be abundant research identifying factors that help foster receptivity and reduce resistance to these practices. Surprisingly, such studies are few and far between, and a majority of them do not provide a clear idea about the impact of organizational context on embedding EBP in police organizations.

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